Robinson Crusoe is one of my favorite literary works of all time, both narratively and thematically. Defoe’s classic is packed with insights into the nature of man and especially man as an individual and in relation to society, or in this case the absence of society. In February of 2017, I wrote an article for Reformation Bible College on the subject of society in Robinson Crusoe and how the absence of community is Defoe’s commentary on the need for companionship. In that article, I wrote:
However, it is the sheer absence of any society that proves to be the greatest nemesis to our hero. He successfully meets and overcomes the challenge of food, housing, and clothing; he even finds methods of making pottery, a luxury to a man in Crusoe’s dire situation. He establishes three houses and keeps a cave as an emergency storage unit. He grows wheat and makes bread. He also tries to brew beer, though he is unsuccessful in this endeavor. But despite his abilities in these areas, he cannot overcome his loneliness […] For Crusoe, all of his work is pointless if he has no one to share it with. He might as well be dead.
Defoe is showing us what God said in the Garden, that man needs companionship. But instead of Robinson Crusoe, I want to talk about another staple of castaway stories, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island and where the message in this novel both compliments and yet departs from Defoe. Unlike Crusoe, Island is not about isolation from one’s fellow man. We have a group of four men at the beginning, with some additions later on (or rather we have three men and a boy, but let’s not play at irrelevant semantics). But aside from surface differences, the books have deeper conflicts and thematic contrasts. Two major themes will be the focus here. First: Redemption of a single man versus Opportunity for mankind. In this theme, the novels differ. This will lead to the second topic: Incomplete Society, a theme where the stories share a common element but the authors approach the subject differently. On a source note, while I prefer the recent translation of Island over the original (better rendering of dialogue and of course a correction of the infamous alteration of Nemo’s last words from the more appropriate “Independence” to the cliched “God and Country”), I’m sticking to the original translation for this discussion because I have a hardcopy readily available and the differences are, aside from Nemo’s final words, not significant enough for me to warrant tracking down the recent translation.
As I said, in Island, the heroes’ see their circumstance as an opportunity, while in Crusoe, the hero’s dire situation serves as a means of personal redemption. Shortly after confirming their location is an island, the following manifesto is said by the sailor, Pencroft:
“If you like Captain, we will make a little America of this island! We will build towns, we will establish railways, start telegraphs, and one fine day, when it is quite changed, quite put in order and quite civilized, we will go and offer it to the government of the Union. Only, I ask one thing…It is, that we do not consider ourselves castaways, but colonists, who have come here to settle.” (78)
Pencfort’s declaration is crucial to establishing the tone of Island. Compare this to Crusoe’s “State of affairs” list, where considers the evil and the good of his situation. The “evil” is related to his loneliness – “I am divided from mankind, a solitaire, one banished from human society (72)” – while the “good” consists in God’s providence and his deliverance from death – “But I am alive, and not drowned as all my ship’s company was (72)”. Crusoe does eventually see himself as master of the island, but his understanding of his situation remains functionally the same. His efforts are toward colonization but survival and escape. The fundamental factor at play in their differing views, it seems, is society. For Crusoe, there is no society, which means his only purpose is to live with the hope of rescue and in the meantime improve himself. For Verne’s heroes – the colonists- the situation is different, with a group of men stranded together. Naturally, their thoughts turn towards taking dominion of the island, transforming their new home into something like the world they once knew. But what about Friday? When Crusoe eventually finds the native and is no longer a solitary man, his goal does not change. Is this merely a cultural or period distinction then? Can we reduce the issue to a matter of Crusoe not being a “Yankee”?
Culture and period certainly play a factor here, but in their differing circumstances and background, one similarity remains- neither Crusoe nor the Colonists have a true society. Crusoe recognizes this incompleteness – his first action upon finding and teaching Friday is to reconsider his ideas for escaping the prison of his island. But what is this blind spot that the Colonists of Verne’s story ignore? The inability to guarantee the second generation. Crusoe sees the ultimate pointlessness of his work without others to share with or pass it down to. The Colonists see themselves as beginning a new American state, but so long as only these three men and a boy are the sole inhabitants of the colony, the efforts have just as little meaning as solitary Crusoe’s. Neither book mentions this idea, but it is a question and a conclusion the reader cannot escape: True society consists of both the current and future community.
Consider the first words God spoke to a human being:
And God blessed them, and God said to them, Bring forth fruit, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heaven, and over every beast that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28, Geneva)
To fully subdue the earth, there must be the continuation of life, new generations – simply put there must be families and there must be children. All of these words are hated by the progressive elements of our society. The simple reason for why Verne, himself a devout Catholic and no stranger to these truths, ignores – or allows his characters to ignore – this element in their task of dominion lies in his target demographic (boys), and his focus on adventure and general avoidance of romantic storylines. But Verne’s personal views and literary intentions aside, I think the hubris of the Vernian Colonists in imagining themselves the conquerors of their island when they had no heirs to inherit their hard-won kingdom, reflects the hubris of our day in believing ourselves advanced and progressive while downplaying the importance of organic families, children, and generational heritage.
In Robinson Crusoe, the lack of current society is an evident and explicit evil. In The Mysterious Island, the lack of a future society is a subtle but implicit evil that, thanks to their eventual salvation, is avoided. The most meaningful and lasting legacy a man and woman leave are their children – not their work, not their achievements. These are good things but without future generations to enjoy them – they lose value. A great book is meaningless if there is no one to read it, a scientific progression pointless if no one will pick up the baton, a house dead if there is no one to live in it a hundred years hence. Without future generations, there is no legacy, no important achievements. For a community to be true, good and beautiful, it must be generational.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe, Tom Doherty Assc: 1988
Verne, Jules. The Mysterious Island, Simon & Schuster: New York, 1946.